Belgium’s Battle over Restitution of Colonial Plunder

A Skull’s Journey: From War Trophy to Museum Exhibit

In the late 19th century, Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe was a powerful Congolese leader who resisted Belgian colonial invaders. His resistance was so strong that Belgian commander, Émile Storms, predicted that Lusinga’s head would end up in Brussels as a museum exhibit. This prediction came true when Belgian troops decapitated Lusinga in 1884, and his skull was displayed in the Brussels-based Institute for Natural Sciences.

Descendants Seek Return of Ancestor’s Remains

Lusinga’s descendants have been striving to reclaim his remains, their struggle taking place against a backdrop of debates about Europe’s responsibility for colonial atrocities, reparations, and the restitution of looted heritage. However, the process has been painfully slow, with restitution of human remains being particularly fraught, especially in Belgium, which grapples with confronting its colonial past.

Belgium’s Colonial Legacy: A Contentious History

Belgium’s King Leopold II exploited the Democratic Republic of Congo for personal gain in the mid-1880s, resulting in widespread death and suffering. Despite this brutal colonial history, Belgium’s colonial past is not mandatorily taught in schools, and many Belgians even defend Leopold as a foundational figure. In 2020, King Philippe of Belgium expressed “deepest regrets” for his country’s brutal past but stopped short of an apology.

Anthropology and Colonial Expeditions: A Dark Connection

The conquest of Congo coincided with the birth of modern anthropology. Belgian scientists, including doctors on colonial expeditions, were encouraged to bring back human remains to provide evidence for racial superiority theories. The remains were used for scientific studies to determine racial characteristics.

Breaking the Silence: Uncovering the Hidden History

Decades later, the information about the acquisition and storage of such remains has been made public. The discovery that Lusinga’s skull was among these remains was brought to light in 2018, reaching his descendants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, attempts by Thierry Lusinga, who identifies as a great-grandchild of Lusinga, to retrieve his ancestor’s remains have been met with silence from Belgian authorities.

The Path to Repatriation: A Complex Process

Despite the obstacles, there is hope for resolution. Belgium has drafted a law to regulate the restitution of human remains, but it faces potential opposition in the parliament. Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s government claims that it was not consulted during the drafting of the law and argues that Belgium cannot unilaterally set the criteria for restitution.

The Importance of Restitution: A Cultural Perspective

For the Tabwa community to which Lusinga belonged, the return of the skull is crucial for spiritual reasons. They believe that an individual who is not properly buried cannot rest with the spirits of the ancestors. As such, the skull of Chief Lusinga must return to the community to receive a burial worthy of a king.

As Belgium grapples with its colonial past, the fate of Lusinga’s skull serves as a poignant symbol of the struggle for reparations and restitution. It remains to be seen how Belgium will address these issues, but the demand for the return of human remains from former colonies is unlikely to abate. Thus, the case of Lusinga’s skull stands as a stark reminder of a painful history and the ongoing quest for justice and reconciliation.